Many years ago, a local French chef convinced me to try a Gateau St. Honore for Mother’s Day instead of the traditional layer cake I had intended to order. I was dubious, but once my family tasted the fluffy, pastry cream-filled dessert, we were hooked.
Year after year, he made the beautiful gateau for all of my holiday parties. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago, and I haven’t been able to find a baker willing to prepare one for me since.
This year, I decided it was time to attempt the challenge in my own kitchen.
I enlisted the help of former Times food editor Janet Keeler, with whom I have traveled twice to Paris and enjoyed the pastry on the Rue-St. Honore, where the cake supposedly originated.
The feast of St. Honore, who is the French patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs, is celebrated on May 16. Honore, or Honoratus, was a bishop in Northern France in the 6th century. His death is said to have ended bad weather that resulted in good wheat harvests, earning him the adoration of bakers.
However the story goes, we thank him for this delicious pastry that could be a grand treat for the mom you’re celebrating this Mother’s Day. Don’t be put off by the many steps that you’re going to read about because, honestly, it can be assembled with ready-made items. You’ll see.
The gateau — French for cake — was apparently crafted to honor Honore by the owner of a bakery on Rue-St. Honore. Modern bakers prepare the cake in various shapes and sizes. I wanted to stick with a traditional round version, but the same cake can be designed as a single-serving dessert or as a long rectangle.
I found a recipe from Los Angeles cooking teacher and blogger Beeta Hashempour, who splits her time between California and Paris. The blog, Mon Petit Four, is filled with classic French recipes. Hashempour is a former digital content director for the tony St. John Knits fashion house, so I trusted her good taste. The recipe didn’t steer us wrong.
In introducing the recipe, she warns that it can be challenging and should only be attempted by “a comfortable baker.”
The recipe takes several hours to complete, and I don’t know if we qualified as comfortable bakers, but we were certainly game to give it a try. (Or at least we were watching a game as we baked.)
We donned aprons and plunged in on a recent Sunday while watching the Tampa Bay Rays play the Toronto Blue Jays.
I set up the mis en place in three separate areas of my countertop, and we started the recipe around the time of the first pitch. Sure enough, we were assembling the final cake in the top of the ninth inning. And that was after taking a couple of shortcuts.
The first one was to use store-bought puff pastry instead of making it from scratch. I purchased a frozen package at the supermarket and thawed it in the refrigerator overnight. I traced a serving bowl to cut a 7-inch round base out of one sheet of the pastry and set it aside on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet.
Next, we made the pate a choux dough, which is the basis for the cream puffs and the edging on the cake. It’s a blend of butter, water, sugar, salt, flour and eggs, plus a lot of stirring to bring it together. Full disclosure, we did this step twice. Our first attempt resulted in a dough that was too runny to hold up. It might have been the nonstick pan, though Janet thinks the liquid measure may have been off. My bad.
So, we started over, using a stainless pan, and had success on the second try. We piped the dough around the edge of the puff pastry to build a little wall for the cream filling and to support the mini cream puffs that stack up along the edge. We used the same dough for 16 small cream puffs. Ours were a little bigger than the size of a quarter, but I think we could go slightly larger next time. In the end, we didn’t need all 16, so we had extras to snack on.
The cream puffs and the puff pastry base baked while we made the cream fillings. The recipe requires pastry cream (milk, vanilla, sugar, flour, cornstarch and eggs) that is cooled and then injected into cream puffs, as well as whipped cream for the center of the cake.
Hashempour recommends vanilla bean paste, but offers the option of vanilla extract. I didn’t have the paste on hand, so we used vanilla extract. But I will try the paste in the future for the texture and an even more intense vanilla flavor.
The final recipe step was to make a caramel sauce to “glue” the cream puffs to the baked puff pastry base and to drizzle on top of the finished masterpiece.
We made our own caramel sauce, according to the recipe directions. But we had a backup squeeze bottle of Ghirardelli caramel sauce that turned out to be useful. Ideally, the caramel should be thinly drizzled in a spiderweb-like pattern over the cake. That was easier to create using the bottled caramel than spooning the homemade sauce on the cake.
We did, however, coat the bottoms of the mini cream puffs with the homemade caramel sauce to adhere to the edges of the cake. It’s also possible to save time by using frozen pre-filled cream puffs instead of baking them and filling from scratch. I had some in my freezer in case ours didn’t turn out. That technique, however, presents a quandary about how to build the wall around the edge of the puffed pastry disk. I would experiment with fashioning thin strips of puff pastry around the edge. Or maybe going without. The caramel sauce will keep the cream puffs from tumbling off. And those who have never had a St. Honore cake will be none the wiser.
St. Honore would have to be proud at our baking resourcefulness.
Just before the end of the Rays game, we assembled the cake, dipping the cream puffs in the caramel sauce and lining them around the edges of the baked puff pastry base. We filled in the gaps and the center of the cake with freshly whipped cream, using a pastry bag and a star decorating tip.
The final step was to place one last cream puff in the center of the cake and finish with the caramel drizzle.
We refrigerated the cake for the last few batters, and then cut a couple of slices after the final pitch. We were as spent as the Rays players, but just like savoring a win, we enjoyed the fruits of our labor.
Gateau St. Honore recipe
For the Puff Pastry
1 sheet of puff pastry
For the Pate a Choux
¼ cup unsalted butter
½ cup water
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
½ cup all-purpose flour
For the Creme Patissiere (pastry cream)
1 cup of milk
¼ teaspoon vanilla bean paste, or ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
⅓ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 egg yolk
For the Creme Chantilly (whipped cream)
½ cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
For the Salted Caramel
⅔ cup granulated sugar
⅓ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon salt, or more to taste
To create the pate a choux
Preheat the oven to 425°F. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm the water, unsalted butter, sugar and salt together. Once the butter has melted, remove the saucepan from the heat.
Pour in the all-purpose flour and stir together to combine. Move the saucepan over to low heat, and stir the now-formed dough/paste until it no longer sticks to the bottom of the pan (about 30 seconds to 1 minute).
Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the eggs, one at a time. It will be slightly difficult to mix the egg into the dough, but just keep vigorously stirring and eventually they’ll become incorporated. Set aside.
Creating the puff pastry base and pastry puffs
Cut out a 7-inch round from the puff pastry. Place this puff pastry circle on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat.
Fill a pastry bag (no tip attached) with the pate a choux dough that you created in your saucepan. In one continuous motion, pipe the dough out along the edge of the puff pastry circle (creating a sort of wall for the puff pastry). Then, pipe out approximately 16 small mounds on the baking sheet, spacing them slightly apart. Smooth out any ridges or pointed tips using a wet fingertip.
Bake the pastry for 10 minutes at 425°F, then WITHOUT opening the oven door, bake the pastry for another 18 minutes at 375°F, until the round and the mounds are a deep golden color. Place the pastry ring and pastry puffs on a wire cooling rack to cool completely.
To create the creme patissiere
Meanwhile, heat the milk in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. In a medium bowl, whisk the sugar, cornstarch, flour, egg and egg yolk together.
Once the milk is hot and steam is beginning to rise from it, stir in the vanilla bean paste (if using extract, hold off for now). Then, pour half of the milk into the egg mixture, whisking the egg mixture vigorously as you do. Pour the rest of the milk in, and continue to whisk vigorously.
Transfer the entire batter back into the saucepan and whisk over medium heat. It will take about 5 minutes for the cream to thicken up into a pudding-like consistency. Just keep whisking the whole time.
Once the cream is starting to look like pudding, quickly remove the cream from the heat. If you’re using vanilla extract, stir the extract in now. If there are any lumps in your cream, just whisk the cream really vigorously to smooth them out.
Transfer the cream to a clean bowl and cover the cream with a sheet of plastic wrap placed directly onto the cream to prevent a filmy layer from forming. Chill the pastry cream in the refrigerator.
Creating the creme Chantilly
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the heavy cream on high speed until indentations begin to appear. Pour in the vanilla extract and powdered sugar, then whisk on high speed until a frosting-like consistency is formed.
Creating the caramel
In a medium saucepan, add the sugar plus ¼ cup of water. Do NOT stir the two together. Simply place the saucepan over medium-high heat, and allow the mixture to come to a simmer. Watch the sugar-water bubble for approximately 7 to 8 minutes, watching it go from whiteish/clear to a dark amber color. Do NOT step away from the caramel as it can burn in a matter of seconds.
Once the caramel has reached a dark amber color and is just beginning to smoke, quickly remove the caramel from the heat. Carefully pour the heavy cream into the caramel (it will bubble), then stir to combine. Add the salt, and again stir to combine.
Fit a pastry bag with a long, narrow filling tip. Fill the pastry bag with the creme patisserie and then pipe the filling into the pastry puffs. Flip the pastry puff upside down so that the flat side is facing you, then dip the top in the salted caramel. Gently give it a shake to pour off excess caramel, then carefully dip the bottom of the pastry puff in caramel too.
Place the pastry puff onto the pate a choux wall that you created on top of the puff pastry circle. The caramel will act like a glue. Continue until you’ve got a ring of pastry puffs.
Scoop the remaining creme patisserie onto the center of the puff pastry. Fill a new pastry bag fitted with whatever tip you like with the creme Chantilly, and pipe the creme on top of the pastry cream.
Stick one final pastry puff in the center of the dessert, then drizzle caramel all over. Refrigerate until ready to serve. (From monpetitfour.com)